The idea of a high school take on Beauty and the Beast had me cringing before I sat down to watch Beastly. As it opens, the film seems to aim for a certain poster pin-up adulation images of a buffed and bare-chested Alex Pettyfer doing push-ups, not merely wall but entire building-sized fashion imagery all over the city. As Alex Pettyfer stands up before the school to deliver his campaign speech Defy the Suck and asks to be voted for because he is rich, popular and has a famous new anchor dad, you wonder whether Beastly is treading a line that seems non-cognisant of the inherent ironies that despite a theme about the superficiality of wealth, the hero casually happens to forget his father has a $5 million lake house to whisk the heroine away to; that despite being a film about finding love in the ugly that it is entirely populated by people who are chosen for their good looks. This is after all a film that casts the embodiment of ugly with Mary-Kate Olsen and asks us to accept Vanessa Hudgens as a supposedly plain, ordinary girl.
The surprise is that Beastly manages to make it work. There is a mild cleverness to the way it transposes Beauty and the Beast into modern high-school terms. Almost all versions of Beauty and the Beast focus on Beauty as she is drawn into the Beasts realm; here the story becomes more the fantasy arc of the character who receives a curse that humiliatingly reduces them from their station to teach them the nature of hubris. Rather than Beauty voluntarily entering the Beasts realm because of the transgressions of her father (as in the fairytale original), the film invents a story about the Beast stalking and then taking her away for her supposed safety due to her fathers involvement in a drug deal gone wrong (something the script skates over a little too quickly for credibilitys sake). The Beasts castle has been replaced by an urban apartment. He doesnt cultivate roses, although does present one to his date because they are out of orchids, while he later builds his own glasshouse on the apartment roof.
Beastly tends to lay on with a spade the theme that good looks are only skin deep and that success and wealth mean nothing. You have to accept the film on its own terms. Do so and it is a surprisingly sincere tale. I was expecting Beastly to be nothing more than a variation on the other Alex Pettyfer vehicle of a couple of weeks before I Am Number Four (2011), a film that strained painfully to find something to say, failed to do so and settled for empty poses and cliches instead. There is a soulful depth to Daniel Barnzs direction that makes far more out of the lightweight material than you might think. There is a warmth to the way Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens come together, despite the fact you can see the film wheeling all the big dramatic contrivations to keep them apart into place (many of which are far too easy he at one point prepares to step aside without saying anything because he merely thinks she would prefer to go on a school trip to Machu Picchu). I am yet undecided if Alex Pettyfer is anything more than handsome teenage pretty boy but he does okay in the central role. That said, he has the entire show stolen out from under him by a wryly sarcastic Neil Patrick Harris.
As a genre fan, one must also take exception with Neil Patrick Harriss potted description of Devil Girl from Mars (1954) wherein he claims that aliens came to Earth to abduct nubile teenage girls whereas in fact it was an alien woman who came to Earth to abduct fertile men to help repopulate the all-woman society on Mars.
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Neil Patrick Harris) and Best Makeup at this sites Best of 2011 Awards).